Free improvisation reaches its apex when performers evoke the feeling of a composition. The music isn’t written in advance, but the players communicate in a way that creates an immediate structure. Joe Morris (guitar), Brad Barrett (bass, cello), and Tyshawn Sorey (drums) bring such a form into being on “Copperhead Valley,” the opening track on Cowboy Transfiguration. Morris’ rapid plucking conjures a “head” that the rhythm section follows. Even though Barrett and Sorey don’t work with a set tempo, the way they flow indicates that they’re paying close attention to Morris.
The remainder of the album doesn’t always contain such structure, though the rapport among the players stays at the upper level. Barrett plucks his bass with visceral feeling, adding gruff contrast to Morris’ clean tone. On “Requiem for a Catfish,” he switches to cello; his exotic plucking throws diced bits of Derek Bailey skronk and Delta blues twang together before his comrades leap into the fray. Yet at 18 minutes, this track doesn’t vary much in dynamics or contrast.
Throughout the album, Morris is heard in the left channel and Barrett in the right. Sorey resides in the center of the mix, presumably so his contributions don’t get lost amid the strings, but it still ends up feeling as if he’s been pushed to the background. Considering the way he can drive music, making the most convoluted time signature swing like 4/4, it’s a letdown that his free ideas don’t have as much presence. A brief solo at the end of “Cowboy Transfiguration Part 1” hints at what he contributes to the interaction with Morris and Barrett. But a little more variety and experimenting with the mix could have made a decent free session even stronger.
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